My adventures in soaping and skin care products started with online purchases of melt and pour soap, a laundry list of essential oils, and a series of butters. I didn’t go into it with a real knowledge base: I was just sort of trying out a new hobby, albeit one with a green undertone. I wanted to live a cleaner lifestyle but hadn’t put much time or effort into researching what that meant. I just trusted that if I was on a seemingly green website that everything would be nice and safe. It was sort of one of those half-hearted attempts at living greener, the kind you make by click-click-clicking stuff into your online shopping basket, while assuming that you must be doing the right thing since it involves essential oils. I mean, how can essential oils ever be wrong?!
I had bought some refined shea butter in that first online purchase, which for some reason, I didn’t make the same connection to as I did, with say, refined foods. I chose to think that refined shea butter just meant more creamy (who knows where I actually come up with this stuff!). Anyway, I happily used it up in creams and in my very early attempts at real soap making (as in with lye, and fear). When I ran out, I bought some more. Only this time I chose an unrefined shea butter because it was on sale. Who doesn’t like a sale? Man, was I surprised the first time I went to use it. I unscrewed the lid, and the smell..I acutally recoiled, then sent an annoyed email to customer service accusing them of sending me rancid shea butter! Of course, what I didn’t know yet, is that shea butter actually smells. Pretty strongly. I find it has a sweet, earthy smell, that isn’t horrible, just not totally enjoyable. Because I had been previously using the refined shea, I had assumed shea butter had a mild smell. Not so. The process of refining shea butter deodorizes it and helps make it creamier. Which, in theory, is cool. But what is not-so cool, is that the refining process includes the introduction of chemicals to remove the less-desireable attributes. Typically this means hexane, which is a solvent used in refining soy and canola oils, is found in industrial cleaners, and gasoline. It’s also used in glue. So, your final product becomes much less smelly, but is now laced with hexane and other preserving agents. Plus, many of the properties of shea butter that are so beneficial for your skin are lost. Not, in my opinion, a happy alternative.
Once I discovered that unrefined shea butter was the way to go, I happily started incorporating it into my skin products. My face, however, was a different story. Shea butter on my face?? You’ve got to be kidding me! It seemed crazy, as crazy as putting butter on a burn or eating bread crusts to make my hair curly. But shea butter did end up being a part of my daily face care routine. I’d like to say it was due to my ample research in the areas of beneficial oils for skin, but as most things are in my life, it was a happy accident borne out of my unparalleled laziness in all things small and quick. I had run out of my usual daily face cream. My skin was painfully dry. My unrefined shea body butter was there on the counter. I did it. And boy, am I glad I did!
The good, the bad, and the gritty of Unrefined Shea Butter
I have a sulphite sensitivity which manisfests itself as rosacea on my cheeks, well, one cheek specifically, but nonetheless annoying. I decided to change up my face routine and ended up tossing out the ointment my doctor had prescribed me. I was using another lotion I had concocted, with coconut oil and aloe vera gel, which wasn’t bad. I wasn’t totally sold on it, but my face was such a disaster at the time that any small improvement was a milestone as far as I was concerned. Anyway, as I mentioned I am incredibly lazy about small jobs (if you want another example of extreme laziness check out this post). I had run out of the coco-aloe lotion and in a moment of tight skinned desperation slathered on my whipped body butter. And I waited. I waited for an eruption of acne, or the rosacea to take over my face completely, or my skin to look like an oil slick. But none of those things happened. In fact, after using the body butter for a few weeks, my face started to look pretty good.
The good news
To be honest, I was pretty surprised. I had automatically assumed that shea butter on face=clogged pores. But not so. Upon further research I discovered this factoid: shea butter is non-comedogenic. As in it won’t clog your pores. It rates a zero. It rates on the same zero scale as argon oil and sunflower oil. Which is super cool. I had been using coconut oil, the trendy cure-all, and it has a comedogenic rating of four, which is considered “fairly high” (see all the oil ratings here).
Not only is shea non-comedogenic, it also has a very high percentage of skin-healing properties. It is considered a natural anti-inflammatory, is high in vitamins A and E (both great for skin!), and can be used to treat a wide range of inflictions including wrinkles, eczema, psoriasis, rashes, burns, and chapped, dry, cracked skin.
The less-good news
Now, as I’ve mentioned, unrefined shea butter has a unique fragrance that oftentimes deters people from using it. You can’t mask it with essential oils or hide it behind more fragrant butters. It’s just there, hanging out, and you either like it or you lump it.
I can’t say I’m in love with the smell. But after using it for two years, I have drawn this strange comfort from the odor. I guess that’s what desensitization is all about. Keeping in mind that the smell isn’t that great, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
The grit factor
So even though I was less-than thrilled with the shea smell factor, I embraced it with open arms. I made a whipped butter that I could use on both my face and body. I used it in my soaps, lip balms, salves and even some creamy solid perfumes I was trying out. This is where I discovered a small glitch. Unrefined shea butter has the tendency to go gritty.
I would start out with a lovely creamy smooth final product, and then within days, the lip balm or salves would start to feel a bit gritty and would look as if there were teeny tiny granules of cream-colored sand in the product. Now, it’s not a total deal breaker. You just rub it in and your body heat melts the grains. But it’s annoying, especially if you’re planning on giving some homemade gifts. Who wants to be known as the gritty gift giver?
But this too is not unsolvable. After some trial and error I figured out what works best for me and my gritty shea problem.
When you melt shea butter and then cool it down, it cools at different rates, and the fats that harden at like speeds tend to join together and form little crystalized bits, or grains. It is, almost unavoidable, especially when you take into consideration fluctuations in temperature and humidity. And while you can’t stop this process from happening, you can prolong the creaminess by adding a small step to your DIY product routine:
Preparing Shea Butter for Use
I usually do this in a large batch when I know I’m about to do a bunch of products. That way it’s all done and ready at the go.
Put your unrefined shea butter in a double boiler (or glass measuring cup). Allow all the butter to melt. Then keep it melted for 15-20 minutes, over a low simmer.
Quickly cool it down by placing the melted shea butter in the fridge, uncovered.
The act of melting and quickly cooling should eliminate most of the graininess. Keep in mind though that shea butter is prone to going grainy and that it won’t completely eliminate grains.
Whipped Shea Butter for the Face and Body
½ cup unrefined shea butter, previously melted and cooled
2 tablespoons sunflower oil (right now the one I’m using is infused with plantain)
2 drops lavender essential oil
Melt the shea butter in a double boiler. Once melted, add the sunflower oil and combine.
Using a hand mixer, blend butter on high speed until it thickens, lightens and looks creamy.
This recipe can easily be doubled, but I prefer to make it in small batches since I am constantly dipping my fingers in the pot and want to avoid germy bits hanging out in there.